This is a double-milestone year for Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, heads of UK studio Working Title Films. Not only is it 30 years since the company’s inception, 2013 marks 21 years since Fellner joined original cofounder Bevan at the helm.
Surely that would be cause for a celebration. In truth the two affable producers haven’t given it much thought. ‘We were thinking about having dinner with you,’ jokes Fellner. A beat, then: ‘Yeah we probably should do something to celebrate.’
‘It’s not only us either,’ adds Bevan. ‘There is a core group of people who have worked together for a long time. It is very unusual in the film industry.’
He believes the reasons for this longevity are largely geographical. ‘One is that we’re based in the UK, and there aren’t many other games in town. The other is, we’re based in the UK! If you’re in Hollywood there are all sorts of alternatives and it would be difficult to hold a group together for the same amount of time.’
Whatever the reason, it’s a decent innings. No doubt this pair has gained some sharply honed insights along the way, on the nature of the industry and how it works. ‘It works in mysterious ways,’ says Fellner, drolly; Bevan nominates a more pointed epigram: ‘Nobody knows anything about anything!’
Bevan is laughing, but it’s no joke: ‘That is the shocking truth,’ says Fellner. ‘Just when you think you’ve got it cracked, it all goes horribly wrong. Or you think something will never work, and it’s a massive hit.
‘It’s the most confounding industry. A lot of businesses, you create a product and spend 30 years honing it so you know it’s going to work. We’re starting from scratch every single film. You bring experience of physical production, and some knowledge of the marketplace, but really you’re back to casino odds.’
That unpredictability can be infuriating, but also gratifying, when what was thought to be a ‘tiny film’ turns out to be a massive hit.
‘The cornerstone movie for Working Title was Four Weddings and a Funeral,’ says Bevan. ‘All of a sudden you had a non-American movie, made for no money, become a worldwide box office phenomenon. That opened up the possibility for all sorts of other films that we’d never have been able to make otherwise.’
‘We made Billy Elliot purely from a point of passion,’ recalls Fellner. Other surprise hits included car-racing doco Senna, Bridget Jones’ Diary and the Keira Knightley vehicle Pride and Prejudice. ‘There’s nothing more gratifying than when you make a film because you love it, and the audience comes,’ says Fellner.
You couldn’t accuse Bevan and Fellner of lacking personal investment. ‘Most of what we do, we’ve developed from an idea or a book or whatever, through the screenplay process,’ says Bevan. ‘So we have a strong creative relationship with the material quite often before a director has even come on board.
‘We then like working with good strong directors. Our job at that point is to make sure the creative vision is intact and the right people are brought on board both in front of and behind the camera, and that you’re working to the right price point. If you get all that right then the shoot itself will go quite smoothly.’
Working Title has excelled at a range of genres, from rom-coms (Four Weddings) to horror (Shaun of the Dead) to comedies (Burn After Reading) to period dramas (Pride and Prejudice). Now you can add musicals to the list: Bevan and Fellner were in Australia in December touting their grand adaptation of Les Miserables.
‘Les Miserables was actually a fast movie to make,’ says Bevan, explaining that they first met with Cameron Mackintosh, producer of the theatrical version of the show, just three short years ago. ‘Most movies take a lot longer.’
Nonetheless, Fellner believes it will be a game changer, due to director Tom Hooper’s inspired decision to record the vocal performances live rather than using pre-recorded tracks. ‘I think it will revolutionise how musicals get made.’
He gives credit to the film’s production sound mixer Simon Hayes, who got ‘clean vocal tracks for every musical performance. We’ve had dialogue films where we had to do more additional dialogue recording than on this film,’ says Fellner.
Fellner believes the biggest challenge facing filmmakers today is to ‘fight the reality of branded entertainment … the superhero movies, the sequels, the adaptations of board games or things that come with huge brand awareness but aren’t necessarily stories. And that’s what most modern day blockbusters are.’
‘A lot of filmmakers this past year have made good films,’ notes Bevan. ‘Still, the whole financial model of the way films get made is changing. The branded movies tend to be very, very expensive, and that’s where the studios are putting their resources, so it’s getting the pickings that are left over to make other films.’
Within this climate, ‘getting a good story, telling it well, and hoping it can compete’ is a genuine challenge. ‘So it’s gratifying’, says Fellner, ‘when you see all these films that are doing $100 million, like Argo, Lincoln, Life of Pi … movies that had a tough journey to get made, but they’re doing business.
‘Maybe the audiences are speaking,’ he speculates. ‘Maybe audiences are saying we want a varied diet, we want things that are interesting and intelligent as well.’
This article originally appeared in issue 151 of IF Magazine in February – March 2013.